Saturday, October 18, 2014

Antonio's Anime Roundup #2

Though I originally planned to have this post up much sooner than now, I'm finally back with another roundup of anime.  I started this recurring feature as a way of getting back into anime, an art form I was never too much of an expert on in the first place, but one that I had especially abandoned in recent years.  At this point, I'd consider myself a full-fledged anime fan.  Admittedly, there's much more chaff than wheat, but when you stumble across a series that's really good, watching it can be a uniquely rewarding experience.  This time around, I've once again watched and reviewed five different anime.  It's an interesting mix of shows from the most recent summer season, acclaimed shows from the last few years, and a series from over a decade ago.

Aldnoah.Zero (Streaming on Crunchyroll and Hulu)

Aldnoah.Zero was one of the most buzzed about shows coming into this year's summer season, mostly because of Gen Urobuchi's involvement.  He's the closest thing that anime currently has to an unimpeachable golden child, given the praise Madoka Magica, Psycho Pass, and Fate/Zero have received.  The difference major between those three shows and Aldnoah, however, is that he only wrote the first three episodes, as opposed to the entire series.  Well, the good news is that you can feel his presence in those first three installments.  They're full of smart characters coming up with clever solutions, they're fast-paced, and they introduce many intriguing themes.  In the beginning, the show kind of recalls a mecha version of Battlestar Galactica, given that it depicts the last vestiges of humanity using their minimal resources and technology to fend off a larger and much more powerful enemy.

The bad news is that once Urobuchi leaves the show, problems start to arise.  Chief among them is the show's main character, Inaho.  He has no personality, no motivation, and no flaws; yet it's clear that we're supposed to think he's an aspirational hero.  (Take a look at the weekly comments on Crunchyroll, count the amount of times somebody uses the term "badass" or "owns" to describe him, and realize that maybe Aldnoah.Zero is succeeding.)  Episodes quickly settle into a repetitive structure where one of the enemy mechs come to attack our protagonists and Inaho defeats them by the end of the episode.  I'm already not a fan of mech battles, so that monotony just made each installment doubly soporific.

A slight pickup occurs in episode 9 when we start to learn just a little bit more about the characters, but then the show just completely tanks after that.  I already had my suspicions that Inaho came from the "Kirito from Sword Art Online" school of male protagonists, but the last few episodes confirmed those misgivings, and then some.  Despite displaying no appealing qualities, he has three different women pining after him.  It's embarrassing.  There are so many wasted characters -- Slaine has interesting motivations until they repeatedly sideline him from the action, Rayet's mystery is intriguing until she turns out to just be a crazy spy -- and the less said about the idiotic ending, the better.  Slim chance of me tuning in to season two.

Grade: C-

Eden of the East (Streaming on Netflix and Hulu)

It's hard to nail down a single genre when it comes to classifying Eden of the East.  The show introduces itself as a mystery, as we meet Takizawa, a man who appears naked in the middle of Washington DC with no memories whatsoever.  He runs into a young woman named Saki, who quickly gets wrapped up in his quest to discover his identity and what exactly is going on.  The premise is instantly intriguing, and the mystery works because it's one that doesn't end up frustrating the viewer with too many questions.  By the end of the first episode, it expands outward to reveal some strands of a political thriller in its DNA.  Takizawa quickly learns that he is something called a Selecao, an agent who's tasked with the objective of "saving Japan," using the 8.2 billion yen he's given by a mysterious benefactor.  Any request is fulfilled by Juiz, a program installed on the cell phones that each Selecao is given.  As the show goes on, the endless capabilities of Juiz become clear, giving the show's splashes of sci-fi as well.  Eden of the East confidently blends all of these genres in way that keeps the plot surprising and thrilling.

But the show's deepest pleasures come from its subtext, part of which requires an entry-level knowledge of Japan's current economic and social climate.  In particular, all the talk of NEETs will be partially lost on anybody who doesn't have that knowledge, which would be a shame, because it's responsible for the show's most fascinating political commentary.  It seems that the underlying concern in Japan is "what's going to happen to this lazy generation of young people"?  It's fitting, then, that there's all of this fascinating post-collegiate anxiety that's laced into the story, especially with the material involving Saki and her friends.  Complaints about the job market, fear of being a working stooge, and laboring hard for little pay come up over and over, and for most of the show's run you wonder whether this is intentional and crucial to the story.  Fortunately, all of those threads come together in the rousing, thought-provoking finale.

Eden of the East is a messy show.  The conclusion flirts with the idea of falling apart at any second, and many people think that it does.  But I love messy shows, and especially this brand of chaos.  You can tell that this is a story coming from somebody who's angry about something and working through those ideas onscreen.  Kenji Kamiyama (the mind behind the seminal Ghost in the Shell) extracts a pervasive feeling of national unrest and morphs it into this wonderful sci-fi thriller.  It may be weird, but thrillingly so.

Note: There are also two movies, The King of Eden and Paradise Lost, that follow the series.  At about three hours in total, they basically serve as a quasi season two of the show.  Most people aren't too crazy about the follow-up films, feeling that they get a little bit too convoluted in the process of delivering answers.  The King of Eden certainly does become bogged down in plot, but it's enjoyable because it's an opportunity to hang out with the series' lovable characters once again.  Paradise Lost also has to wrap up the story about the mystery of the Selecao and who is running the whole game, but despite the slightly overstuffed nature of the film, it's an absolutely dynamite conclusion.  Nitpick at the logistics of it all you want, but it's such a passionate, optimistic, and moving ending.  I'd give the actual anime series alone an A-, The King of Eden a B+, and Paradise Lost an A; which averages out to an A-.  But Eden of the East is much greater than the sum of its parts.

Grade: A

Haibane Renmei (Streaming on Hulu)

I only recently got back into watching anime this year, but I've followed it enough in the interim to know that there are less and less anime like 2002's Haibane Renmei that are being made.  Aside from Mushi-shi and a handful of others, its soothing vibe and glacial plotting is a style all its own.  Its a series of quiet observations and gentle revelations, and that might not be for everyone, but if it does work for you, then you won't find many other shows that do it better.

The story revolves around a group of "haibane," winged creatures with halos over their heads, who live in a series of abandoned buildings called Old Home.  Not much is known about the haibane in the beginning, and much of the show is about the slow unraveling of their mystery.  Creator Yoshitoshi Abe uses their angelic appearance to great effect.  He's said in interviews that they're not angels, and that there's nothing traditionally spiritual about the show, but the fact that he uses this specific imagery makes the series' wrestling with humanity even more poignant.  The haibane die just like we do, and it's just as confusing and painful.  There's a strong structure holding up the show too, building slowly and beautifully to a turning point in episode six, which ripples outward until the conclusion in episode 13.

Because of the leisurely pace of Haibane Renmei, it is easier to focus more on its artistic merits, which are numerous.  The show is excellently directed: everything from the framing, to the angles, to the pacing is incredible.  And though the art and animation might not stand up to the quality of modern anime, it's still pretty impressive.  The muted color palette perfectly reflects the languid mood of the show, and its attention to background detail is astonishing as well.  But what makes the show so wonderful is that it's not just an "artsy fartsy" exercise -- it's emotional and thoughtful, and you're sure to be analyzing it long after you've finished.

Grade: A-

Kids on the Slope (Streaming on Crunchyroll and Hulu)

It's no secret that I love the work of Shinichiro Watanabe.  Samurai Champloo and Cowboy Bebop are two of my favorite anime of all time, and Space Dandy is on track to be one as well.  For some reason, I never got around to Kids on the Slope, his 2012 anime about jazz in 1960s Japan.  It's one of his few shows that isn't wholly original -- it's an adaptation of a nine-volume manga from Yuki Kodama -- so maybe that's why I was so hesitant.  But it's a shame that it took me so long, since it's such a pleasant, personal series.

You know those anime where the whole time you're just waiting for the next action sequence to pop up?  Even if it's a good show and the scenes between the action are solid, you still find yourself wanting to get to the proverbial fireworks factory.  That's how Kids on the Slope is with its music scenes.  Scored by the legendary Yoko Kanno, the scenes of characters playing jazz music are a work of sublime beauty.  Not only that, but the performance scenes are incredibly animated, with an almost one-to-one translation between the movements of the characters and the real life movements required to achieve those notes.  In Kids on the Slope, music is used as a communicative force.  It's a way of bringing people together, of settling conflict, of declaring love.  In the process, the show effectively conveys how playing an instrument is something that requires hard work, but that passion pays off.

Kids on the Slope tells the story of Kaoru and Sentaro, two people who couldn't be more different, but are deeply connected by their love of jazz music.  The closeness and rapport that they develop is something that you don't find in many male relationships on television, particularly in anime.  Over the course of the series, we are watching the process of two guys becoming best friends, learning new facts about each others' lives, and how to play in tune with each others' personal melodies.

Kaoru and Sentaro's friendship is just one of the many relationships this show juggles.  Kids on the Slope is full of romantic entanglements.  There are love triangles that become love quadrilaterals and then become love pentagons.  Usually this would completely tank a show, but in this case, it doesn't for two reasons.  First, the unrequited and misaligned affections are handled in a gentle, non-melodramatic way that's indicative of the entire show.  And additionally, because the true core of the show is the relationship between Kaoru and Sentaro as best friends, the lovey-dovey material feels well-balanced.

There are some flaws in the show, ones that keep me from putting it on the level of Watanabe's other work.  Namely, there is some undercooked plotting involving Kaoru and his abandonment issues that stem from his mother leaving him when he was young, along with generally clumsy writing whenever the show needs to shake up the tranquility and generate conflict between the characters.  These demerits knock it down from the top tier of anime, but they're not enough to keep this from being a pleasant and lovely series.  Kids on the Slope is essential for anyone who's a fan of Shinichiro Watanabe, jazz music, nostalgia, or just a bunch of complex, layered characters.

Grade: B+

Terror in Resonance (Streaming on Funimation and Hulu)

I write reviews of these shows as I finish each of them, so it has been a while since I watched and reviewed Kids on the Slope as I'm writing this one.  When I wrote that, I was under the impression that I'd have other series to write about, and Terror in Resonance would get reviewed in a later post.  Well, it turns out that that didn't happen, so you've got two Shinichiro Watanabe reviews in one post.  While its release may not have been as big of a deal as Space Dandy's strategy of being aired first in America every week, Terror in Resonance was an anticipated debut in its own right.  That's not only because every new Watanabe show is a cause for celebration, but also because it's another collaboration with the venerable Yoko Kanno, who delivers some of her best work here.

The plot of Terror in Resonance is buzzworthy enough to match the show's pedigree too.  It follows two teenagers, only known by the codenames Nine and Twelve, who plan terrorist attacks on various locations in Tokyo.  We don't know much about who they are or why they're doing this in the beginning, but early hints suggest that they were products of an experimental government program when they were little, and planting these bombs are their way of lashing out and sending a message. On their first mission, harried classmate Lisa Mishima gets caught in the middle, and she chooses to become an accomplice when the only other option is death.

In the first few episodes, the show is a terrific slow-burn game of cat and mouse, as Nine and Twelve put anonymous videos out on the internet featuring riddles that will help the police stop the bombs.  Most of the responsibility for solving these riddles is former detective Kenjiro Shibizaki, who uses his intellect to get a leg up on Nine and Twelve.  Another riddle, another bomb.  And just when that structure starts to feel a little repetitive, a new villain is introduced, completely flipping the structure of power.  Somewhere around the series midpoint, it goes from slow-burn to balls-to-the-wall thriller, continuing to find ways to raise the stakes.  It mostly does so through the elegant, intelligent setpieces it constructs.

Part of what makes those sequences so engrossing is the technical mastery on display.  Watanabe shows why he's a legend every chance that he can get, with beautiful shot compositions and a controlled sense of momentum.  This show moves.  But the high production values don't end there -- it's also impeccably animated.  The characters aren't designed like usual anime characters, and they move with an effortless fluidity.  Couple all of that with Yoko Kanno's score, a dizzying mix of jazzy drums and ringing guitars, and you've got a show with an indelible sense of style.

It is not without its flaws, however.  There's not much in the way of development when it comes to Nine and Twelve -- even when we learn more about their backstory, we don't really get much of an understanding of who they are as people, or why we should care about them.  Even worse is the complete mishandling of Lisa, who never becomes anything more than a prop to be put in danger.  Watanabe usually specializes in precise, devastating endings, but Terror in Resonance fails to stick the landing, mainly the characters aren't fleshed out enough.  Still, the show's thematic aims are admirable.  Its message about the cause of these children being exploited by a fearful, war-mongering government isn't always well-articulated, but when it hits, it hits.

If you're going to go with only one Shinichiro Watanabe anime from 2014, then definitely go with Space Dandy, which is an A+++ if there ever was one.  But like Kids on the Slope, Terror in Resonance a can't miss for Watanabe fans, or fans of the medium in general.  There's just too much Watanabe goodness to skip out on, and it can't be said enough how well-animated and directed it is.  You don't see that kind of exquisite style too often.

Grade: B+

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